Stories of America

Great Hall, Ellis Island

Great Hall, Ellis Island

Last fall, the day before Election Day, when a feeling of historic import and tension was in the air, I paid my third visit to the wonderful museum at Ellis Island.

I’d advise visitors to go as early in the day as possible. First of all, you’ve got to stand in line at Castle Clinton to get your ticket for the ferry. Then you have to stand in a long line to go through the airport-style security, although if you buy reserve tickets (rather than flex time) you get a shorter line. (Tickets are $12 for adults; $20 with an audio tour. The museum is free, but you can’t get there without taking the ferry.)

The ferry stops at Liberty Island first. The Statue of Liberty is definitely worth a visit, but Ellis Island can easily take hours by itself; we skipped the statue and stayed on the ferry. And still, we didn’t get to see everything in the museum.

A few facts I learned:

  • The first choice for the location of the immigration station was Bedloe’s Island (now Liberty Island), but the Statue of Liberty’s sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, considered it a “desecration” of the statue to put an immigration station there. (Peter Morton Coan, Ellis Island Interviews)
  • In 1916, presumed German saboteurs detonated fourteen munition barges at New Jersey’s Black Tom Wharf, less than a mile from Ellis Island, damaging the buildings. I had never heard of this.
  • By the late 19th century, as many as a third of immigrants traveled back and forth (at least once) between the United States and their country of origin.
Processing new arrivals

Processing new arrivals

The museum looks at the immigration experience from several angles. The Peopling of America exhibit, on the first floor, is full of charts and information. Upstairs, there are exhibits about the processing experience for new arrivals, and displays of documents, advertising, and beloved items brought from home. There’s also a genealogical research center.

Sustenance for the rest of the journey

Sustenance for the rest of the journey

You can learn about the restoration of the buildings. You can take a free tour with park rangers or watch a film. And you can eat french fries on the terrace, if you’re brave enough to fight off the gigantic gulls.

But mainly, the attraction of the museum is found in the oral histories, the pictures. The children’s shoes. The joy and the sadness. The reasons people came here, and still come here. There is no single Story of America, of course, but here you will find many, many stories of America.

And, if you go in the winter and take the last boat home, you can join everyone in snapping pictures of this view.

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